The Significance of Signifying

After reading the excerpt from the Oxford Companion to African American Literature in class, it inspired me to research the etymology of the term “signify.” What I came to find was that the term originates from “signum” which means “token” in Latin. The verb “significare” in Latin then translates to “indicate” in Old French, then evolves to “signifier” and then later to “signify” in Middle English.

In writing, we treat “significance”as a noun but forget to draw attention to the verb signify. We are constantly looking to find answers of what a text is indicating about a certain subject and seeking climatic moments (in relation to the Freytag’s Pyramid). But what is it that we are actually doing TO signify? How are we forming answers to the author’s purpose and such? What IS the thought process? How do the roles of thinkING and signifyING interrelate? How are we making meaning through signifyING? These are the questions I have been struggling with this semester in my current English courses. Differentiating between defining the significance (noun) of a text rather than interpreting in order to signify (verb) a text is crucial. It also relates to the conversation that was held in class about what an author is (and the significance of the role).

Something eye-opening about the excerpt that was covered in class was its definition of signifying and how it can play a role in unification. “The rhetoric of signifying, therefore, aims at the formation of community rather than at the expression of dominance.” Instead of just forcefully expressing one’s belief, the purpose of rhetoric is to actually connect with others by similar ways of thinking. By having a sense of unification, it encourages the sharing of various narratives instead of just one. Representation is strengthened based upon a group’s similarities, even when there are separate and unique stories within a certain particular group.

Although signifying plays a role in unification as it connects the author to the reader through a shared experience, it also allows the author to convey their own purpose and maintain authorial independence and intent. In one way, signifying can definitely create community. But, it also allows the author freedom and independence to share their ideals to people who may not relate to the shared experience and can, instead, understand a different perspective. For example, in “Bloodchild” by Octavia E. Butler, a short story covered in class, Butler creates a community around her literature while she still has her own personal agenda. Butler sets up a society on another planet, and immediately, her readers may jump to the theme of slavery. But if signifying is considered, she has her own critique of the reader for forcing her into a particular narrative of oppression because she is an African-American writer. While signifying allows her to create a community of people who read this piece, it also simultaneously allows her to critique the reader and maintain her own independent agenda through authorship.

As explaining a text’s significance can sometimes be seen as having only one answer, similar to how symbols can only represent one idea or concept, the acknowledgement of signifying as a verb is crucial to realize as it can both encourage and discourage unification (both/and). Author’s purpose plays a role when reading and deciphering a text, whether you agree or disagree with the author and/or other readers of the same text.

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